Julie Payette’s appointment as Canada’s next governor general could become a “live issue” if political enemies want to target the prime minister on this in the future, say some political observers, but others say the former astronaut can only be judged by her performance as the GG and not by any unfortunate and tragic incidents that happened in her personal life.
All interviewed for this article described Ms. Payette, 53, an astronaut, engineer, and pianist who speaks six languages, as “highly accomplished,” “an inspirational and aspirational figure,” and “a role model for young people.”
But some expressed concerns about the domestic assault issue that took place in November 2011 in Maryland where Ms. Payette and her then-husband William “Billie” Flynn, a former RCAF pilot, lived, and said the issue could be revived in the future to damage the prime minister’s government.
“It’s constitutionally sensitive,” said pollster Greg Lyle of Innovative Research in an interview with The Hill Times. “Imagine that at a key moment when the GG has to make a decision,” he said, and someone comes out of the woodwork to air any dirty laundry while she’s trying to make constitutional decisions. “Then all of a sudden, she’s under a cloud at the same moment she’s about to make a decision.”
Mr. Flynn, now a Lockheed Martin test pilot, did not want to comment last week and the Prime Minister’s Office declined a comment referring The Hill Times to the statements that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (Papineau, Que.) has already made on this issue.
Some media were tipped off about Ms. Payette’s personal life.
Several news organizations reported on July 12 that Ms. Payette would be appointed as the new governor general. On July 13, Prime Minister Trudeau (Papineau, Que.) held a press conference on Parliament Hill along with Ms. Payette to announce her appointment. The news was well-received from all political parties. On July 18, iPolitics reported on the assault incident that took place in Maryland in 2011. On July 19, The Toronto Star reported about the 2011 car accident in Maryland in which a woman died.
Based on a background check, iPolitics first reported that Ms. Payette was “arrested and charged under Section 3-203 of the Maryland Code with second degree assault, which can carry a jail term of up to 10 years and fines up to $2,500. The charge was dropped two weeks later.” The assault happened in November 2011 and Ms. Payette has since called the charge “unfounded.” iPolitics also reported that Ms. Payette “has since had the record expunged” which is why the details about the circumstances that led to the incident are not known.
The couple has since split up, but had been engaged in a prolonged six-year divorce legal battle, which was settled shortly before Ms. Payette’s appointment as the future GG.
After the story about the assault incident was reported by iPolitics, Ms. Payette’s lawyer filed a motion in a Maryland court to seal the records of divorce proceedings.
Several news organizations, including CTV, The Toronto Star, iPolitics, The Globe and Mail, Postmedia, and CBC recently filed a motion in a Maryland court to get access to the records of the divorce proceedings. A decision is expected in the coming weeks.
The Toronto Star, and CTV reported recently that Ms. Payette had a road accident in the summer of 2011 in Maryland in which a 55-year-old woman was killed. Following an extensive police investigation that went on for eight months, the Maryland Police determined that Ms. Payette was not at fault and the case was closed.
Mr. Trudeau said Ms. Payette underwent the same background checks that other appointees to senior government positions go through but nothing came out that would suggest the former astronaut is not qualified for the GG’s job.
“The vetting process is deep and extensive and raised absolutely no issues that would prevent her from being governor general. She will make an extraordinary governor general,” Mr. Trudeau told reporters on July 20. The prime minister, however, did not say if he discussed the two legal issues with Ms. Payette.
“The conversations I had with Madame Payette centred around the extraordinary service, her vision of the country, her vision of the role that she would fulfill as governor general, and demonstrated to me her extraordinary strength in being one of our great governor generals,” Mr. Trudeau said.
Ms. Payette was not available for an interview last week and, according to a statement sent to The Hill Times and other news organizations through the Governor General’s Office, she said, she would not comment on “unfounded charges” for family reasons.
“For family and personal reasons, I will not comment on these unfounded charges, of which I was immediately and completely cleared many years ago, and I hope that people will respect my private life,” said Ms. Payette.
Meanwhile, Mr. Lyle said posts like the governors general are “not just ceremonial positions” and that in some instances have to make constitutional decisions of national significance, especially in minority governments. He cited the important role that the governor general played in the two Stephen Harper minority governments after the 2006 and 2008 elections. Following the 2008 election and faced with an almost certain defeat in the House of Commons, Mr. Harper made an abrupt and controversial request to the then-governor general Michaëlle Jean to prorogue Parliament. She granted the request, but the opposition parties at the time publicly expressed their frustration with the decision which saved the Harper government from defeat. The Harper government went on to win the 2011 election with a majority and remained in power until the Oct. 19, 2015 election. If Ms. Jean had not accepted Mr. Harper’s request, the political history of Canada could have been very different.
Mr. Lyle also referred to the B.C. Lieut.-Gov. Judith Guichon’s role after the May provincial election in which no political party won a majority. The-then incumbent premier Christy Clark lost the vote of confidence in the legislature in June by a margin of only two votes. Following the vote, Ms. Clark asked the lieutenant-governor for the dissolution of the legislature, but Ms. Guichon declined the request and invited the NDP to form government, which NDP Leader John Horgan did recently do, propped up by the Green Party.
Mr. Lyle said considering the significance of the job, the occupant of the Governor General’s Office should be “above reproach.” He said he suspects that if a male candidate had faced similar circumstances, the government would not have appointed the person.
“Well, certainly it raises questions,” said Mr. Lyle. “When you are the governor general, you’re not supposed to be in a situation where questions are raised. That’s the concern.”
A top Liberal, meanwhile, who in the past played a key role in senior level government appointments, said background complications like Ms. Payette’s were the reason that some highly qualified individuals with similar circumstances failed to get appointments in previous Liberal governments. The source, who did not want to be identified, said there was always concern that these appointees would be in the public domain and that if any troubling information came out in the media, it could become embarrassing for the government and the appointee.
“The risk would be that the information comes out, that it ends up on the front page of The Globe and Mail or The Hill Times and it’s embarrassing to the appointee and to the government,” the source said who declined to be identified. “There’re lots of people that you can appoint that have nothing [in their background].”
Pollster Nik Nanos of Nanos Research said that complications in Ms. Payette’s past were a “head scratcher” for a lot of political observers, but also said that if Ms. Payette did a good job in her new position, the “chatter” now would merely be a footnote. However, if she failed to do her job well, he said she would be hounded by the media.
“Julie Payette will be judged by the job that she does as governor general. If she does not do a good job as the governor general, she’ll be dogged throughout the mandate,” Mr. Nanos said. “She holds her destiny in her own hands. If she ends up being an exceptional governor general, then the chatter today will not really be relevant, it will be more of a footnote than anything else.”
Former House law clerk Rob Walsh said he doubts that Ms. Payette’s past incidents will affect her ability to perform her duties and said they should not disqualify her from being considered or holding the GG’s position.
“I don’t think there’s any cause for concern,” said Mr. Walsh in an interview last week with The Hill Times. “I don’t think this [assault] incident disqualifies her from being appointed the governor general. If we hold everybody to that level, there are many fine, good people who will never be able to hold public office. …I’m sure she’ll do her job as she’s supposed to.”
Tim Powers, vice-chairman of Summa Strategies agreed. “Human beings are going to be human beings, people have unfortunate things happen to them in their lives,” said Mr. Powers. “[If] we are going to start discounting people because they’ve had unfortunate circumstances, tough times, we’re going to have a pretty thin pool of people to choose from.”
Prof. Nelson Wiseman, who teaches political science at the University of Toronto, said governors general make decisions on constitutional issues with the help of advisers and said he also doesn’t see any reason why Ms. Payette would not be able to perform her duties when faced with any constitutional issues.
“The governor general does not make these decisions in a vacuum,” said Prof. Wiseman. “The governor general has advisers and any governor general who doesn’t [consult] with his or her advisers is a fool. I don’t think she’s a fool. Fools don’t become astronauts.”
Mr. Trudeau appointed Ms. Payette without the advice of any committee of experts, unlike former prime minister Harper who appointed David Johnston as the governor general in 2010 based on the advice of an ad hoc advisory committee of experts. Mr. Trudeau, however, does use advisory committees to make appointments to the Supreme Court and to the Senate.
The Hill Times